From mere trash to treasured lanterns

Crafty family: (From left to right) Wan Yii, Wan Xin, Yu Qi and Fou adjusting fixtures on the lanterns they made at their home in Bukit Mertajam, Penang. — CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

BUTTERWORTH: They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and this could not have been more true for a mother of three here.Since 2004, Fou Tee Hoon, 52, would turn egg cartons, plastic bottles, aluminium cans and almost every other imaginable trash items into something useful.

And she now possesses the skill to make elaborate lanterns out of throwaways, winning awards in competitions to boot.

Fou said the idea stemmed from the need to keep two of her daughters, who are twins, occupied since they were 10 years old.

It quickly became the family passion and the lanterns they made grew more sophisticated.

“A friend then suggested we take part in a traditional lantern-making competition and we won!” Fou said.

Her daughters then became obsessed with scavenging for throwaways. What others saw as an unwanted empty bottle, they saw as an art potential.

“Bottles and containers, cardboard boxes, bottle caps, cans; we started gathering such things to make lanterns with them,” she said.

Fou’s twin daughters, Chew Wan Xin and Wan Yii, now 29, and their 15-year-old sister Yu Qi, now make elaborate lanterns of all sizes.

Wan Yii said while they enjoy submitting their creations in competitions, “we don’t bother too much about winning as we just enjoy participating”.

“We get to see other people’s designs in competitions and learn from them.

“We try to incorporate the Malaysian spirit, so some of the figurines in our lanterns are dressed in all sorts of cultural attire,” she said, adding that the rabbit and the mythical Chinese moon goddess called Chang’e were also among the art elements.

Wan Yii said no matter how complicated the project, they usually took around two weeks to complete it, spending around three hours a day on it.

“We divide the work based on our expertise. There are disagreements and conflicts but we work it out,” said the arts and crafts teacher.

Wan Yii said their lanterns were fully functional with lights and sometimes even rotating pieces, achieved with battery-powered motors.

“We even made a 1.2m-tall lantern once.

“We use wooden sticks or wires to hold the base together and glue for the decorations.

“The only things we buy are coloured paper, tassles and the lights.

“We use acrylic paint and water colour,” she said, adding that they never sold their creations.

While they use various tools to cut the material, Wan Yii said the hardest was turning aluminium cans into flowers.

“Using tools will not give it a natural shape so it is best to use our hands to shape the petals but if we are not careful, it can cut,” she said.

Wan Yii said after the (Covid-19) pandemic, there had been fewer competitions.

“We won in quite a few, including a national level one held in Kuala Lumpur.

“Now, there are so few competitions but we still enjoy making lanterns.

“It keeps our creative juices flowing,” she said.

The team is now engrossed in a new effort: turning plastic bottles into birds to add onto their lanterns.

Wan Yii said every time the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Mooncake or Lantern Festival, drew near, their love for making lanterns sparks anew.

The festival this year falls on Sept 29, which is the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunar calendar.

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